Gov. Jay Nixon has signed into law a bill to stiffen Missouri’s DWI laws.

The bill cracks down on repeat DWI offenders and those with higher blood alcohol levels by requiring them to spend more time in jail; move more cases from municipal courts to state courts, where penalties are tougher; mandate better record-keeping for DWI cases so that repeat offenders can be properly tracked; and offer offenders opportunities to complete treatment instead of going to jail.

“This is a milestone for Missouri in the fight against drunk driving, as significant as lowering the blood alcohol content limit to .08 in 2001,” Nixon says. “Repeat DWI offenders will spend more time in jail if they don’t get treatment, the most dangerous offenders – those with the highest blood alcohol levels – will be treated more harshly, and records will be kept to track all DWI offenders. The bottom line is that Missouri’s roadways will be safer.”

The bill passed both the House and Senate unanimously and was one of Nixon’s top legislative priorities. Last November, he convened a DWI summit of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, court officials, representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others involved in DWI issues, saying Missouri must close gaps in its DWI laws and take a comprehensive approach to a complex problem.

The bill outlines the following regulations:

· Limits municipal court jurisdiction in DWI cases by requiring that if a driver has two or more previous intoxication-related cases or alcohol-related law enforcement contacts the case must be handled in circuit (state) court;

· Requires each law enforcement agency, prosecuting attorney and municipal court to adopt a DWI reporting policy. Failure to certify adoption by law enforcement or prosecutors may result in the loss of grant funds from the Department of Public Safety;

· Requires all municipal court judges to complete a course on state drunk driving laws;

· Requires each municipal court to report to the circuit court the total number and disposition of every intoxication-related traffic offense adjudicated, dismissed or pending; and

· Authorizes circuit courts to establish DWI courts or dockets for cases in which the driver pleaded guilty to DWI or excessive blood alcohol content (BAC), and the driver’s BAC was .15 or above, the driver had one or more previous intoxication-related offense, or the driver had two or more previous alcohol-related enforcement contacts.

In a circuit that has a DWI court program or other court-ordered treatment program, drivers with blood-alcohol levels of at least .15 will be required to spend 48 hours in jail and those with a BAC of .20 or above will be required to spend at least five days in jail, unless they complete the DWI court requirements. Prior offenders who do not complete DWI court requirements or minimum community service requirements shall serve a minimum of 10 days in jail, while persistent offenders (two or more priors) shall serve a minimum of 30 days in jail.

The new law expands the ability of prosecutors to bring evidence of prior DWI offenses through the use of criminal history records, certified driving records maintained by the Department of Revenue or the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Driving While Intoxicated Tracking System (DWITS). The law also closes a loophole that currently permits a DWI offender with a single prior offense to have that offense expunged from his record even if that offender has a new DWI charge pending.

“This is the comprehensive approach we needed to take to close loopholes that have allowed repeat drunk drivers to keep putting innocent lives at risk,” Nixon says, adding that it means more chronic offenders will go to jail and others will get treatment, when that is appropriate.

“Most importantly, this should mean that fewer families will have to answer a knock at the door in the middle of the night and learn that a loved one’s life has been cut short by a drunk driver,” he says.

Jessica Machetta reports [Download / listen Mp3]